I woke up with a mouth drier than the sands of the Sahara. The previous day spent unprotected on the slopes of Mitsutōge sent the immune response into overdrive, resulting in a fitful night of rest. I stumbled out of my room and to the barista counter and order a double shot of espresso that helped to clear the sinuses. It would be a difficult task to muster up enough will to climb a mountain, but with my mountaineering reputation at stake, I borrow a one-speed bicycle and hit the tarmac across the arched slopes of Ohashi bridge. Once across, I navigated the handle bars left for the long counter-clockwise traverse of the western shores of Kawaguchiko.
Constant streams of arctic air washed over me from the north, hindering progress and forcing me into a crouching position. The espresso was doing its trick for now, but I needed to supplement that kick with a little sustenance, which I found a little further away in the baskets of Lake Bake bakery. The teriyaki and melted cheese wrap crawled down the back of my raw mouth with a bit of help from the half-frozen water bottle attached to the side of my tattered backpack. Across the shores of the lake, Mt. Fuji had already closed her curtains to visitors, so I stared at the billowing clouds and hoped for a positive change in the weather.
My motivation to climb a peak had now hit rock bottom – how was I suppose to hike to the top of a mountain noted for its spectacular Fuji vistas if the million-dollar views had already been withdrawn? At the Nagahama junction I veered west for the steep climb to a mountain pass towards Lake Saiko. About a quarter of the way up, my legs turned to jelly and I dismounted, half pushing, half cursing my way up the restricted switchbacks of the paved road. Just before the tunnel at the pass, I rested at the trailhead for Mt. Kenashi and Junigatake, half considering this longer approach along a jagged ridge but my internal calling got the better of me and I once again mounted the bicycle and coasted to the western lake.
By now it was already high noon, and with nothing in my backpack apart from a few snacks, I pushed my luck until finding a family-run lake view shokudō open for lunch. I tucked into a ginger pork lunch set, forcing the food down my throat even though I was hardly hungry. The fatigue hit me like a ton of bricks and I sat there looking at the lake and wondering if I had it in me to hit the trails or not. I knew I just needed a moment for the caloric equilibrium to return to my withered body.
My lunch was served with green tea, and after a few extra cups, I felt about as normal as I can get this dreadful season. For anyone who is lucky enough not to suffer from cedar allergies, allow me a minute to put it into perspective. Imagine placing a clothes pin on the bridge of your nose after someone has just put a few eyedrops of sand into your pupils. On top of that, a cruel demon has inserted a needle with a small hole into an opening just above the clothes pin and is pumping sea water straight into your sinus cavity, creating a crystalline waterfall that rolls down your nostrils and onto your upper lip. The constant battle between invading pollen and the strong defences of your immune system leaves your body wiped before you’ve even begun your daily activity.
I once again mounted my bicycle and cruised down to the trailhead of Mt. Junigatake, my target for the day. As I stood at the start of the strenuous hike and looked up at the wall of mountain towering over me, a wave of unease swept through my body. There was only one solution.
A decade earlier I would have fought off the fatigue and marched up the steep contours towards the ridge, but I needed another source of motivation, in the form of a hot spring bath. Now I know that the majority of people opt for the soak post-hike, but sometimes a break in tradition is the only solution. Besides, who in their right mind would build a hot spring directly opposite the trailhead, where it would be so much easier to hop in a bath than scale a giant peak?
I forked over the staggering 900 yen fee and made a bee line for the outdoor bath. Despite or perhaps because of this early afternoon hour, I found myself completely alone and soothed with my aching body. Now, everyone knows that taking a long bath will completely zap your energy, but you’ll be pleased to note my completely unfounded study about the energizing benefits of a short bath of roughly 7 minutes. Now, I know what you’re thinking: 900 yen for 7 minutes and no happy ending, but rest assured that this expenditure was necessary, because I hit the road with a new spring in my step.
By giving up on Mt. Juni, I turned my attention to a smaller ridge flanking the northern shores of Lake Saiko. The Tokai Nature Trail follows this row of mountains on its way towards western Japan, and it seemed like a good way to preserve my hiking reputation without doing myself in. I parked the bike at the trailhead and followed the switchbacks through a labyrinth of exposed tree roots and rotting snow fields. In places exposed to the direct sunlight, angle-deep mud did its best to impede my forward progress.
I settled into a good rhythm, and wondered if giving up my assault on Mt. Juni was justified after all. It only took about 40 minutes to breach the ridge and reach a viewpoint at Sankodai, which reads ‘the viewpoint of 3 lakes’. The 3 lakes in question here are Saiko, Shojiko, and Motosuko, but for some reason Shoji could not be discerned amongst the backlit forests of Aokigahara.
Mt. Fuji was still enveloped in heavy cloud, so I sat facing north, taking in the pleasant vistas across Saiko to Mt. Juni, whose jagged outline looked rather intimidating from this angle. Perhaps giving this one a miss wasn’t such a bad decision on second thought. A low rumble from the west grew louder as the source of the disturbance revealed itself: a trio of war planes swooped over the pass just below me, following each other in perfect succession. Perhaps they are gearing up for a showdown between Japan’s ballsy neighbor to the north.
The descent back down to the bicycle was slippery to say the least, but the trekking poles helped prevent a couple of potentially nasty spills. Back on the road, I completed the loop of Saiko and dropped back down the pass to Kawaguchiko and continued circumnavigating the golden shores. By now the chafing on my inner thighs from the hard saddle on my mode of transport had become uncomfortable, so I settled into Cisco Coffee for another caffeine boost and to give my legs a rest. Apparently all of their coffee beans are roasted in San Francisco, which makes you wonder about the quality of the java, being 8500 km away and all. Such things are best overlooked when you’ve reached your limit of physical endurance and are looking for a naturally-occuring drug for an extra boost in reserves.
Dark clouds rolled in, an omen of a change in the weather. The final kilometer of the ride back to the guesthouse was up a dreadfully long incline, and it was all I could do to keep from falling off my bicycle. I pulled into the entrance just as the first flurries of the approaching snowstorm blew off the slopes of Mt. Fuji. I settled into a sofa in the lounge and let my body completely relax, every last ounce of energy zapped from my limp body. Despite the fatigue and discomfort, it sure beat lazing about all day wasting time on-line. Sometimes holidays are the best reminder that we’ve got to make the most of our lives, pollen be damned.